This Madness of the Heart by Blair Yeatts is a gothic mystery introducing Miranda Lamden, a professor of religion and investigator of the paranormal. In her small college town in Eastern Kentucky, the Grace and Glory Bible College is taking over the town, led by the maniacal preacher, Jasper Jarboe. JJ is going to spiritual war with nonbelievers and a series of deaths follow in his wake, and Miranda needs to stop his influence, which could grow even more sinister.
Miranda Lamden is an exciting basis for a series, given her interests and intelligence. She’s erudite and authentic – the smartest person in the room. The mood of the novel is also excellently constructed, combining the gothic with the present day, giving it a feeling of “True Detective” (first season), in which backwoods religion and real supernatural phenomena collide. It feels like a world where anything can happen – both natural and supernatural – and Lamden is the rock through it all.
However, it’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly where she’s coming from. For example, Lamden sides very hard against the Christian college in the very beginning of the novel before we know why it’s quite so bad. I don’t write this as someone who is deeply religious or easily offended, but the book initially assumes we’ll side with Lamden’s disdain for the college for erecting a giant cross, which seems a fairly understandable thing to do for a religious university. That the university eventually proves to be sinister isn’t really the point, because her blanket dismissal of the college makes Lamden look bad.
Lamden’s secular perspective is of course valid, but her animosity towards the college veers towards prejudice. That’s actually not a problem, if that was meant to be a facet of the character, but the book is assuming the same level of bias from the reader, as if we’re in on it. Of course, if that is your perspective, then Lamden is going to speak to you. But some readers may be put off by her lack of empathy for people unlike her.
When a key character dies midway through the book, the novel loses some momentum, as the character was central to the novel. Yeatts is great at establishing setting and individual characters, but there are too many threads going that don’t service a central story to really understand where the story is going. At times, the narrative really jumps alive, but then there are long threads of dialog that are less engrossing and the reader is left waiting for it all to come together.
Overall, Yeatts is an engaging writer page by page, but the overarching story is less easy to follow, and doesn’t always keep the reader engaged. Combined with some issues with tone and This Madness of the Heart has a few stumbling blocks. Lamden has much potential as a character to build a series around, as she’s got a fun narrative voice, and the hints of paranormal phenomena are intriguing throughout, but Yeatts needs to hit these notes a little harder.